©2022 Robert Lee Murphy
Wednesday morning, June 20, Major Bonnet came out of his quarters, located on the second floor of Old Bedlam, and joined me on the balcony overlooking the parade ground. Streaks of white added highlights to the brown of his neatly trimmed beard and short-cut hair. He’d not told me his age, and I would never ask. I guessed him to be about forty. He settled a gold-braided, black slouch hat on his head and buttoned his blue uniform frock coat over a gray, collarless shirt. The gold leaves on the jacket’s green shoulder boards identified him as a major in the Pay Department. Gold cord along the seams of his sky-blue trousers also marked him as an officer.
My trousers were the same color, more faded to be sure, and they bore no gold cord. My pants were left over from my service as a private a year ago. They were wearing thin in the seat and the knees, but they were still servable. I didn’t want to waste money on a new pair. I had spent two dollars in Omaha for two checkered, red and black, wool shirts. They were too hot for comfort in this weather, but they were all I had.
Major Bonnet packed a briar pipe with tobacco, then returned the leather pouch to a jacket pocket. He struck a lucifer match against the porch railing and coaxed a trickle of smoke from the bowl. He used the blackened tip of the little finger on his left hand to fiddle the dollop in the pipe’s bowl.
A telegram from Fort Sedgwick, a hundred sixty miles south of Fort Laramie, had informed the major that the pay chests had arrived there from Omaha. The message advised the chests would be sent forward with the next wagon train.
We were watching such a wagon train approach the fort along the dirt road that ran along the west bank of the Laramie River. A foot bridge crossed the river next to the fort and provided access for the Indians who camped on the east bank, but no wagon bridge existed here. The Oregon Trail crossed the Laramie River where it flowed into the North Platte River a mile north. At that point, this side road led south to the fort.
Since no stockade enclosed Fort Laramie, our view of the train’s approach was unobstructed. This military facility that sprawled for a half mile along the river’s western bank resembled a ramshackle village more than a fort.
In the train, I counted eight blue army supply wagons, each pulled by six mules. Following them, four horses pulled a lightweight, canvas-covered farm wagon. A single horseman led the procession. Muleskinners’ curses could be heard faintly at this distance. The freight wagons would be destined for the quartermaster warehouse, which was blocked from our view by the intervening roof of the infantry barracks at the north end of the parade ground.
The lone horseman rode back down the line of wagons to the trailing farm wagon. He tipped his hat to a couple sitting on the wagon’s seat and pointed in our direction. He swung his horse around, and the driver of the wagon pulled his rig out of line to follow the rider. They came toward us down the road that led to the center of the fort.
After passing in front of the barracks, the rider and wagon turned north. When they made the turn, two young ladies came into view on the tailgate of the wagon. One of them cradled a baby in her arms. The rider and the wagon continued a short distance until they reached the sutler’s store, where they halted.
The rider rode back in our direction. When he passed the wagon’s tailgate, he paused to speak to the young ladies before continuing. He did not retake the turn to the east in front of the barracks but came straight on toward Old Bedlam.
A squad of infantry performed close order drill on the parade ground. A sergeant shouted commands. The only sound from the marching column came from the stomping of the men’s brogans, which stirred up the dust on the hard-packed ground. If grass had ever grown there, it had long ago been tromped away.
A few cottonwoods lined the edge of the roadway directly in front of Old Bedlam. These scraggly trees provided the only green color except for a few weeds that grew in the shade of their trunks. Fort Laramie had evolved from a trading post erected in 1834 near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers. In the intervening years, trappers, soldiers, and immigrants had chopped down every tree. Now, the army sent a detail to Laramie Peak, fifty miles away, to find firewood.
The clopping sound of the rider’s approaching horse added to the shuffling sounds of the troopers’ feet. No breeze fluttered the tree leaves. Nothing abated the heat emanating from the morning sun climbing into a cloudless sky.
The clean-shaven rider halted at the hitching rail in front of our two-story, wooden structure. He made a quick survey of the porches stretching along both floors of the building before stepping out of his saddle. He lifted a pair of saddlebags off the horse’s rump.
“This headquarters?” he called up to us.
“No,” Major Bonnet answered. “This is Old Bedlam.”
“Unusual name,” the man said.
“The young buck officers who’ve lived here over the years have been known to throw an occasional wild party. Thus, the name.”
“I see.” The man lifted his hat to reveal thick, shoulder-length black hair. He slapped the hat against his leg, releasing a spray of dust. His sun-bronzed face revealed high cheekbones. “You the commanding officer? I was informed a major was in command here.”
“No, I’m the paymaster. Major Armond Bonnet. You the captain of the wagon train that just arrived?”
“That I am. Duggan Maguire’s the name.”
“Irishman, eh,” the major said. “Don’t hear much Emerald Isle in your accent.”
Maguire smirked. “Don’t speak Gaelic. My pap came from the old country, but I was born and raised in Indian Territory. I’m half Cherokee. English was taught in my school. I’m occasionally accused of repeating an Irish phrase I heard my pap use when I was growing up.”
“Don’t suppose you brought the pay chests?” the major asked.
“Well, I didn’t think so, or you’d have a military escort. Plus, you would’ve set a record for bringing a train from Fort Sedgwick.”
“Well, sir, I didn’t bring any pay chests. I did bring dispatches for the commanding officer.” Maguire lifted his saddlebags.
“Adjutant’s office is over there.” Major Bonnet pointed the stem of his pipe toward the southeast corner of the parade ground. “You’ll find Major James Van Voast there.”
“Thank you, Major.”
“Don’t mention it, Captain Maguire.”
“Call me Duggan. My time as a wagon train captain will end as soon as I drop off these dispatches. I only signed on to bring this train of supplies to Colonel Carrington’s Eighteenth Infantry. Figured that’d get me closer to the Montana goldfields.”
“You missed Colonel Carrington. He led the Second Battalion of the Eighteenth out of here three days ago.”
“Oh, no,” the wagon master said. “Looks like my days as a captain may not be over.”
Bonnet knocked his pipe against the butt of his hand, dislodging the dottle, allowing it to fall into the dirt a few feet from the wagon master. “If you’ll excuse me, Captain, I’m out of tobacco and need to head over to the sutler’s store.”
“I plan to stop there myself. See you later.” He waved a hand, remounted, and trotted down the road.
Major Bonnet headed toward the stairs leading down from the second floor. “Coming, Zach?”
I didn’t have any money to spend in the sutler’s store, or anyplace else for that matter. I’d foolishly shot dice recently with some old sergeants, and they’d cleaned out what cash I had, plus they now held my markers for most of the money I had coming on payday.
“Yes, sir. I’m coming.”